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Semicolons, half & half, hermaphrodites

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So Kurt Vonnegut thought semicolons are like trannies or hermaphrodites and they have no use. That’s not true for both the punctuation mark (though I rarely use it because it’s easy to forget) and the social outcasts. Though he was driving a point about semicolons, did that reflect his view about homosexuality? I don’t know a lot about Vonnegut’s work and personal life. I have Slaughterhouse Five sitting on my desk for over two years now.

Here’s a part of an amusing essay about one’s transition from blindly following a hero to actually seeing value to the lowly semicolon himself:

Many times a week I’d been experiencing a mental event like this: I’d be reading an article about a flood in Mexico, which would lead me to thinking about a wedding I once went to in Cancún, which would lead me to thinking about marriage, which would lead to gay marriage, which would lead to the presidential election, which would lead to swing states, which would lead to a fascinatingly terrible country song called “Swing” — and I’d be three songs into a Trace Adkins YouTube marathon before I’d glance back down at the newspaper on the table.

It’s in honoring this movement of mind, this tendency of thoughts to proliferate like yeast, that I find semicolons so useful. Their textbook function — to separate parts of a sentence “that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences” — has come to seem like a dryly beautiful little piece of psychological insight. No other piece of punctuation so compactly captures the way in which our thoughts are both liquid and solid, wave and particle.

And so, far from being pretentious, semicolons can be positively democratic. To use a semicolon properly can be an act of faith. It’s a way of saying to the reader, who is already holding one bag of groceries, here, I know it’s a lot, but can you take another? And then (in the case of William James) another? And another? And one more? Which sounds, of course, dreadful, and like just the sort of discourtesy a writer ought strenuously to avoid. But the truth is that there can be something wonderful in being festooned in carefully balanced bags; there’s a kind of exquisite tension, a feeling of delicious responsibility, in being so loaded up that you seem to have half a grocery store suspended from your body.

So yes, Kurt Vonnegut: simplicity, in grammar as in all things, is a virtue, not to be sneezed at. But I can’t agree that semicolons represent absolutely nothing; they represent, for me anyway, the pleasure in discovering that no piece of writing advice, however stark, however beloved its deliverer, should ever be adopted mindlessly.

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Written by markus

July 4, 2012 at 10:20 pm

Posted in Books

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